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Environment and energy

Environment and energy

Green technology and growth: a vision we can believe in

12 Feb 2021 James McKenzie
Taken from the February 2021 issue of Physics World, where it appeared under the headline "Let's go green". Members of the Institute of Physics can enjoy the full issue via the Physics World app.

James McKenzie believes the UK government’s ambitious 10-point-plan for a “green industrial revolution” can deliver – if we put our collective minds to the problem

wind farm and virtual data
Visionary thinking The UK’s recent green-energy plan offers great opportunities for physicists. (Courtesy: iStock/ConceptCafe)

If 2020 taught us anything, it was that humans are a very adaptable and tenacious species who can achieve incredible things by putting our minds to a problem. Not only did we prevent untold deaths by adapting our lives, we also developed and tested vaccines against a new and contagious virus, doing in less than 12 months something that normally takes 5–10 years to achieve. If only we can bring a similar vigour and urgency to tackling climate change.

Here in the UK, the government has already made clear what’s needed by recently publishing its “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”. The policy paper lays out what I think is an inspiring vision to create a quarter of a million jobs with £12bn of government investment over the next 10 years. British prime minister Boris Johnson claims the plan will help the UK achieve its goal of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

Climate change is an example of a “Pascal’s wager”

I’m pleased that the UK government has such a clear, visionary yet sensible plan. After all, as I mentioned last year, climate change is an example of a “Pascal’s wager”. That’s because even if you don’t think climate change is real, it makes sense to act as if you do. Doing nothing could be hellish (rising sea levels, mass extinctions, famines), but taking action could have untold benefits.

Planning ahead

The first point in the plan is about producing enough offshore wind capacity to power every home, quadrupling how much we produce to 40 GW by 2030. The second focuses on hydrogen, the aim being for the UK to have 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and housing, with the first town heated entirely by green-hydrogen by the end of the decade. The plan also looks at improving nuclear power as a clean energy source and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors (both fission and fusion).

There is a focus on electric vehicles, clean public transport, cycling and walking. Cleaner aviation and greener maritime are in the plan too, as are making homes and public buildings more energy efficient by installing 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028. The plan calls for the UK to become a world leader in carbon capture, with a target of removing 10 MT of carbon dioxide by 2030 and planting trees on 30,000 hectares of land every year.

Finally, the City of London should become the global centre for “green finance”, investing in the technologies to make these energy ambitions come true. Indeed, the outgoing business secretary Alok Sharma (who will now be president of the COP26 climate-change summit in Glasgow in November) thinks the plan could help to unlock up to £42bn of private investment by 2030 in the energy, construction, transport, innovation and environment sectors.

We need to develop more cost-effective carbon-free sources of energy

A physicist and long-time supporter of the IOP’s business-innovation awards, Sharma believes it will boost exports in low-carbon technologies, creating jobs and “reinvigorating our industrial heartlands”. Of course, writing a plan is easy; making it happen will be harder. But if there’s one thing we need to do for the plan to succeed it’s to develop more cost-effective carbon-free sources of energy.

I’m reminded of a speech given in 2018 by Greg Clark – one of Sharma’s predecessors as business secretary – in which he discussed the “trilemma” of electricity supply. That refers to the belief that electricity can be cheap and secure, cheap and low-carbon, or secure and low-carbon – but never all three at once. Clark, however, reckoned that green-energy sources would make the trade-off redundant by the mid-2020s.

Consider off-shore wind. It’s secure, at least in the UK, where we have plenty of coastline and doesn’t face the “not-in-my-backyard” opposition that bedevils onshore wind-power locations. It’s cheap too. According to the website, offshore wind fell from £167/MWh in 2017 to £127/MWh in 2019 and is projected to drop to £44/MWh in 2023 – critically, that’s less than the projected costs of gas and solar (£50/MWh and £60/MWh, respectively).

Nuclear effort

Renewables are a “no brainer”. Of course, one challenge is that they’re not always “on”, which means we will either have to add storage capacity or rely on other carbon-free energy sources. That’s where nuclear is so vital. We need to put our fear of this source of energy behind us – the truth is that the technologies based on nuclear fission have come a long way in recent years.

Consider the UK’s Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) programme, which supports companies developing safer alternatives to conventional fission plants. Rather than relying on pressurized- or boiling-water plants, the AMR instead focuses on stable salt reactors – advanced fuelling that prevents a meltdown. This latest iteration of AMRs could address many of the safety issues surrounding traditional nuclear plants and recently included an additional £170m in support.

Green technology and growth can go hand-in-hand

Of course, AMRs will succeed commercially only if they can bring down nuclear’s cost from its current high of around £100/MWh. The programme even includes extra money for fusion – the holy grail of clean energy – with Sharma calling for the UK to be a “trailblazer” in this field by “capitalizing on its incredible potential as a limitless clean-energy source that could last for generations to come.” Fortunately, the UK is already a leader in fusion technology.

The UK Atomic Energy Authority boasts the recently upgraded MAST reactor as well as the Joint European Torus. The UK is still, post-Brexit, part of the ITER fusion experiment being built in France. The plan also reaffirms the UK’s commitment to the STEP programme, which seeks to build a prototype tokamak-based fusion plant in the UK by the early 2040s. Britain even has several burgeoning private fusion firms, including Tokamak Energy UK, First Light Fusion, Crossfield Fusion and Pulsar Fusion.

Green technology and growth can go hand-in-hand and I believe that, with sufficient focus, the UK can meet its net-zero-carbon goal by 2050 and thereby tackle the most enduring threat to our planet. For physicists, it’s an exciting time.

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